Some local lobstermen are giving the green light to a state plan to use whale-safe fishing as a marketing ploy.
Green elastic bands marked "Massachusetts" and including the image of a whale's tail will be used to clamp the claws of the tasty crustaceans. That's the way they'll appear in supermarket and restaurant tanks, alerting buyers that the animal is local and fresh and that fishermen took care to protect the welfare of whales, especially the endangered Northern right whale.
"It's cool," said lobsterman Mike Zdanowicz Jr., a Peabody resident who docks his boat beneath the Veterans Memorial Bridge, which links Salem and Beverly. "It distinguishes us from Maine."
The supposed superiority of Maine lobsters is mainly a function of public relations, say many lobstermen.
Elliott Rowand has run Rowand Fisheries in Beverly for nearly half a century. He already has the bands on his lobsters.
"You need a magnifying glass to read it," he grumbled. Nor is he sure of this approach.
"Half my customers would like to have Maine lobsters. Draw your own conclusions."
Nevertheless, Rowand sees no difference in eating quality.
"Lobsters are all the same," lobsterman Dan Femino of Salem said. "No matter where you catch them. God made this little animal. We all try to catch them. Whether it's off the coast of Maine or the coast of Massachusetts — it's the same animal."
"They swim the same waters," said lobsterman (and Salem City Councilor) Mike Sosnowski. Lobsters can migrate hundreds of miles.
"Everybody thinks all lobsters come from Maine," he said.
To keep the whales safe, Massachusetts was among the first states to require the use of so-called "sink rope." Strung between lobster traps on the ocean bottom, rope allows a number of traps to be pulled up at once. Environmentalists have raised alarms over the system, charging that whales diving to feed can get tangled in an obstacle course of floating ropes and drown.
Entanglement in fishing gear has been called the second-biggest cause of human-related whale deaths, after ship strikes.
The solution to the problem, some believe, is sink rope, designed to lie on the bottom. Despite the fact that it's more expensive and can fray and break, sink rope has earned widespread support. It will be required as of October, along with breakaway moorings.
"Sink rope is fine," Femino said. "Save the whales. That's the idea."
Lobstermen care about the environment, Zdanowicz said. "That's going to preserve my future."
"It's not like fishermen a generation ago," Sosnowski said, "when they didn't give a damn about the environment."
Bernie Feeney, president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, praises local fishermen.
"Just about everybody is already in compliance," he said. And it's not cheap — the sink rope costs between $6,000 and $10,000 per lobsterman.
The breakaway moorings, meanwhile, will cost as much as $1,500.
Sosnowski has used sink rope for years. He estimates up to 90 percent of his colleagues have no problem with it. On the other hand, there's less consensus concerning the damage done by lobster gear to whales. Those who fish close to shore insist they rarely see the creatures.
"I see whales probably on the average of a couple of times a week," said Sosnowski, a deep-sea lobsterman. "But I don't see near the number I saw 10 years ago. If there's no feed fish in the area, they won't come in."
Zdanowicz is unhappy with the breakaway buoy requirement.
"I have to redo all my buoys. ... Government is making it harder for us," he said.
Regulations are tougher in Massachusetts than elsewhere, said Feeney, who fishes out of Boston. Canadian lobstermen don't have to meet the same standards. Maine's fleet has been resisting the sink rope requirement.
"In Massachusetts, we seem to be a target. We have some people who run to the federal court to sue us," he said.
Material from The Associated Press contributed to this report.